LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Jefferson County Public Schools officials expect to unveil how Kentucky's largest school district plans to start the 2020-21 school year in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic next week, Superintendent Marty Pollio said Monday.
Pollio and others fielded a series of questions about how JCPS will handle instruction in the upcoming school year during a virtual town hall, which yielded hundreds of inquiries via text message and more than 4,000 viewers at one point.
Questions asked during Monday's virtual town hall covered the myriad public health guidelines issued by the state and how JCPS planned to adhere to them.
"This is going to be a challenge and a struggle, probably the greatest challenge in the history of any of our careers in education," Pollio said. "... It's not going to be an easy year, but I do believe we will step up and meet the challenge, whatever it may be."
JCPS, which will resume classes on Aug. 25 pending approval by the Jefferson County Board of Education, is exploring two options to start the 2020-21 school year: offering families a choice between in-person instruction and a virtual academy or beginning the year with nontraditional instruction.
Students who choose the district's virtual academy will have "synchronous" learning experiences and need to participate on their computers throughout the school day, Pollio said.
Teachers will be assigned to virtual academy classes based on enrollment, he said, noting that families will need to commit to that option for a period of time rather than alternating between remote and in-person learning.
"That most likely would be at least for half of the semester, potentially for the full semester," he said.
The local COVID-19 landscape will determine whether JCPS starts the 2020-21 school year entirely with distance learning.
"I want everyone to know that decision will be based upon safety and health of students first and secondly maximizing student achievement," Pollio said. "... We'll make a decision as quickly as we possibly can for families, but we owe it to our students and our families to watch that data and decide whether we do in-person school."
Like most school districts in Kentucky, JCPS joined the state's nontraditional instruction program for the first time in the closing weeks of 2019-20 after Gov. Andy Beshear recommended that schools cease in-person instruction to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
"We are really proud of what we were able to do for the spring with NTI with very little notice and a very short turnaround, but now we have more time to plan," Chief Academic Officer Carmen Coleman said. "So not only will the virtual option be much more robust, so will NTI, what we're calling NTI 2.0."
About two-thirds of nearly 4,000 educators who responded to a Jefferson County Teachers Association survey indicated they would rather begin the year with distance learning rather than returning to their classrooms.
The possibility of resuming distancing learning to start the 2020-21 school year comes amid increasing pressure from President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who have suggested federal funds may be withheld from school districts that do not return to in-person instruction.
Most federal funding is distributed through reimbursements for school meals and through grants for the education of poor and disabled children.
"We have to get them open, and I think there's a lot of politics going along," Trump said during an unrelated roundtable meeting Monday. "I think they think they'll do better if they can keep the schools closed in the election."
The American Academy of Pediatrics and national education groups called on Congress to provide additional funding for school districts so they can safely reopen in the fall.
"Local school leaders, public health experts, educators and parents must be at the center of decisions about how and when to reopen schools, taking into account the spread of COVID-19 in their communities and the capacities of school districts to adapt safety protocols to make in-person learning safe and feasible," the groups said in a joint statement Friday.
"For instance, schools in areas with high levels of COVID-19 community spread should not be compelled to reopen against the judgment of local experts. A one-size-fits-all approach is not appropriate for return to school decisions."
If JCPS starts the school year with nontraditional instruction or has to transition to that plan at any point due to COVID-19 outbreaks, Pollio said it will be imperative to deliver additional Chromebooks and data hotspots to families that lack technology and internet connectivity at home.
JCPS had some 25,000 Chromebooks available for low-income families and those with children in special education programs. About 6,000 T-Mobile hotspots with unlimited data were also provided to families with disabled children.
"We've ordered an additional 30,000 Chromebooks," Pollio said. "We are in the process of receiving hotspots as well."
Starting the 2020-21 school year with distance learning will also make fall sports "very unlikely," he said.
District officials plan to use the nearly $30 million allocated to JCPS from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act to cover much of its reopening and remote learning costs. The extra Chromebooks, for instance, are expected to cost JCPS $8.2 million.
The biggest expense for the district, however, will be nearly $2.3 million to provide disposable masks for students and staff who need them.
Starting in first grade, students will be expected to wear masks while riding school buses and inside buildings if they can't maintain adequate social distancing.
Paige Hartstern, an assistant superintendent of elementary schools, said the district will look to enforce social distancing in kindergarten classes and consistently sanitize classrooms.
"We recognize that there will be challenges," she said.
For students who ride buses, parents will be asked to complete a form indicating that they will not send their children to school if they have fevers or exhibit COVID-19 symptoms, said Eva Stone, the district's health coordinator.
Students and staff who test positive for COVID-19 will need to bring notes from their local health department or physicians before they can return, Stone said.
Schools that experience COVID-19 outbreaks may transition to nontraditional instruction individually, though district leaders may choose broader closures in such instances.
"We know if we have to get to a point where we begin to shut schools that that would be very difficult not to make a decision at that point to go to full NTI," Pollio said.
If staff have to quarantine after contracting or being exposed to COVID-19, they may get emergency leave days so they'll continue to be paid without needing to use sick leave during those periods.
Lawmakers granted such emergency leave during this year's legislative session, but the school relief bill only covered the 2019-20 school year. Jimmy Adams, head of human resources for JCPS, said he expected some action soon from the Kentucky Department of Education to grant similar emergency leave for the upcoming school year.
"We've let them know that we fully support those efforts," Adams said.
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